Does Antarctica’s Remote Southern Ocean Need Special Protection?

Risks ranging from overfishing to warming waters call for extending barriers.

A view of the sunset over a tabular iceberg in the Weddell Sea during a voyage to Antarctica. (Photo: Michael Setboun/Getty)

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Antarctica a couple dozen times in the past two decades, to both its high, cold interior and iceberg-lined coast. Most recently, we spent last January there on a sailboat armed with big 3D cameras, making a film about ice and how rapidly the long, thin peninsula that juts from the continent towards South America is changing because of warming temperatures.

Antarctica is without compare in its beauty and remoteness. And there is ice everywhere you look, piled thick on the sides of mountains and floating on the sea. Yet every year there is less and less of it, as air and sea temperatures have warmed along the Peninsula by five to ten degrees in the past 50 years. Those warmer temperatures mean more open water, more evaporation, and more precipitation, which these days is mostly rain during the summer months of November through February. Rain is a mortal enemy of ice.

Though we tend to think of the seventh continent and the ocean that surrounds it as being far from man’s reach, and harms, increasingly Antarctica is being impacted by...us.

MORE: Palms Trees Coming to the Antartic? Blame Climate Change

Its waters are becoming more tempting to fishing fleets willing to travel further and further from home. Various pollutions—air, water, plastic—are slowly evidencing themselves in what has long been the most pristine place on the planet. And as a changing climate changes ever faster, it is being felt perhaps most significantly among the ice sheets and glaciers that rim Antarctica.

Historically, the continent has been pretty well looked after. It is the only place on Earth successfully governed by international treaty, which in 1991 was extended for 50 years, which should keep exploitation (drilling for oil and minerals, for example) at bay until at least 2041.

For many years there has been talk of turning the continent into the world’s largest park, which could make it even more off-limits to commercial interests. A recent attempt by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to get the ocean surrounding the continent turned into an MPA—Marine Protected Area—failed at meetings in Tasmania, but hopes are that approach may work as early as next year.

Several well-organized groups have formed to try and limit manmade risks. The Washington-based Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition website is packed with info, as is the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, which boasts a heavy-hitting board of directors, including entertainers, business people and scientists (Ed Norton, Ted Danson, Richard Branson, Sylvia Earle and more).

The AOA site offers an online petition (“I want Antarctica’s ocean protected because ___”) and a ten-point list detailing why it should be.

These three stood out:

— Adelié and emperor penguins, Antarctic petrels and minke whales, Ross Sea killer whales, colossal squid and Weddell seals all thrive in this inhospitable climate.

— 85 percent of the world's fisheries are classified as over exploited, fully exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, so commercial fishing vessels are moving to remote waters such as Antarctica's in search of fish (according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization)

— Then there's krill, an essential part of the food chain that supports the region's whales, penguins, seals, fish and birdlife. Growing demand for krill as a health supplement and as food for fish farms has put it at risk. Climate change has already been linked to a significant decline in krill numbers—up to 80 percent in one region around the Scotia Sea (Atkinson et al 2004).

Today, January 1, do your part and give a far-away place a fresh start. Sign the petition.

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